Melbourne has recently played host to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Aside from being an amazing celebration and privilege for a food-mad city to host, it has meant one very important thing to our culinary community: Our city gets to entertain not some of, but most of the world’s best chefs and hospitality experts. Faithful fingers crossed they were impressed by Melbourne, because Melburnians were impressed by them.
Amongst those journeying to Melbourne for the awards ceremony and the number of events surrounding it–such as Melbourne Food and Wine Festival–was Chicago chef, Grant Achatz. While he’s been on the food industry’s radar of gastronomic genius for the last fifteen years or so, it’s only recently after the hugely popular Netflix series, Chef’s Table, that recognition of his name and restaurant, Alinea, has reached epic proportions. Slotting (somehow!) into his busy schedule, I had
a conversation with Achatz that explored his journey, what’s to come, and what he really thinks about Melbourne.
When Achatz sat down with me, he’d just completed a masterclass in front of a few hundred Melburnians, talking and cooking on stage for over an hour. He showed the auditorium how at Alinea they inflate a mozzarella balloon and serve it with fancy renderings of tomato (think tomato water), basil and balsamic, joking about how really it’s just a glorified Caprese salad. It’s fair to say that anyone would be exhausted after leading such an event, but coffee in hand, he pulled up a chair in a quiet corner of the press room and pleasantly bantered with me about jet lag, initial impressions of Melbourne, and how busy his day had been thus far–a far cry from the serious-seeming chef plastered across promotional photographs of Alinea.
Achatz trained under Thomas Keller at the esteemed French Laundry, and spent a brief stint at elBulli (Spain) before gaining one of his first accolades back in 2003; the James Beard award for Rising Star Chef of the Year, during his time at Trio. In 2005, Achatz opened Alinea with business partner Nick Kokonas, catapulting himself into foodie fame and ensuring many more future awards.
‘Alinea’ translates to ‘the beginning of a new train of thought’, which as an ethos represents the restaurant’s constant drive to reinvent diner’s perceptions of food and their emotional experience. The degustation restaurant that started as part molecular gastronomy, part pyrotechnics, and part pure creativity, continues to push boundaries today. Think ‘pillows of nutmeg air’, where plates of food are seated on inflated pillowcases filled with the scent of nutmeg, that gently exude a warm, spicy scent as you cut into your meal. Or sugar balloons filled with helium that are not only delicious, but inspire the giggles in just about anyone.
For those who’ve seen Achatz’s story on Chef’s Table, read about him, or watched the film documentary, Spinning Plates, you’d be familiar with his more personal journey. Shortly after opening Alinea and reaching national recognition and success, Achatz discovered he had stage IV cancer of the tongue. The diagnosis was grim; invasive and hugely scarring surgery, with no other alternative in sight and a low chance of survival. He thought he was going to die.
Thankfully the University of Chicago reached out with an experimental alternative of non-surgical treatment that included intense rounds of radiation. After this harsh and gruelling process, Achatz was deemed cancer free. If you’re assuming it’s all uphill from there you’d be wrong, as he discovered that with his new lease on life, he had lost his sense of taste. One of America’s–and the world’s–best chefs found himself in a position that had become incredibly hampered by his physical capability.
Eventually flavours started to come back, but fragmented. Achatz found himself learning the process of developing taste as an adult. “When you’re born, you’re learning how to perceive flavour, but you’re too young to know or remember it,” Achatz explains. “So you think about going through your adult life as a chef, somebody that makes it their livelihood and their life–their life passion–to discern flavours and the way they combine, and then to have that wiped out…” He says, giving me a moment to digest this. “Then to have it come back in the same way that a newborn gains that sensory quality of perceiving flavour
Achatz has many times spoken publicly about this process and how it helped educate him on balance of flavours, giving him a new perspective as a culinary professional. Curious not only about the process, I wanted to know more about how his appreciation has changed since regaining the sensory qualities of taste, almost eight years ago now. “It’s about the way flavours work together,” he says, “because when they came back, they came back so isolated that it was really easy for me to go: ‘Okay. All I taste is bitter. I taste this coffee, it’s bitter.’ I can perceive that. Then if I dump a bunch of sugar in it, it still just tastes bitter. But then three months later when I dump a bunch of sugar in it, I can taste sweet and bitter, and all of a sudden you start going; ‘Okay, this is how they work’.” Playing around and experimenting with balance was something he could explore as an adult–and what’s more, an adult chef–in the way that a newborn would not be informed enough to. “It was really profound, I wouldn’t recommend it,” he laughs, “but, for me, [losing my sense of taste] was very informative… It changed the way I cook. I feel like I
appreciated subtleties. I appreciated balance. I appreciated just the way you season food.”
“I can taste probably better than I used to, everything has come fully back and I’m now more mentally aware of how things work. However it’s not normal,” Achatz says, elaborating that his sensitivity to acidity, and general taste is higher. “Anything extreme kind of short circuits me a bit. Realistically it’s left over from radiation where essentially what they did was they burned me, right? So when you think about somebody that has a severe burn, the skin is thinner,” he says. To demonstrate, he rolls up his sleeve, showing me a burn on his inside forearm, a badge one would assume has been earned in the kitchen. “So if you think about the covering, the actual layer of skin on your palate, on your tongue, mine is simply thinner… I think I just have a greater appreciation and a different way of evaluating flavour.”
Even though Achatz’s and Alinea’s success came before the diagnosis, the experience and aftermath has clearly informed him not just on flavour analysis and understanding, but on working with others in the kitchen, too. Achatz often speaks fondly of his time under Thomas Keller, labelling him a great mentor and now friend. His own processes had to be revisited when he lost his sense of taste, relegating him to idea inception (mostly through drawings and descriptions on large sketch pads), but not in control of creation in the kitchen. “I was admittedly–prior to being diagnosed and going through treatment–I was a dictator,” Achatz tells me, as it’s been mentioned that most dishes during service were plated up and touched at least once by the Head Chef himself. “Like most chefs are, especially when they’re young, it was: ‘I’m right, you’re wrong. I make up the rules. You bring it to me, I’ll tell you what it needs,’” he says. “It was very much that, and when I had to rely on people and I had to trust people to tell me what was right and wrong and what tasted good and what didn’t, it made the restaurant so much better. Like genuinely, I don’t think Alinea would be where it is if I didn’t get sick.”
Achatz tells the story of how Executive Chef at Alinea, Mike Bagale helped create the edible floating sugar balloon, a now iconic dish for Alinea. “In the beginning everybody was like; ‘Wow, I can’t believe that you’re giving him credit for doing that, that’s like, crazy.’ That balloon would not exist, I don’t think, if for one, I hadn’t thought about making food float fifteen years ago, and two, throwing out the gauntlet to him [Bagale] and he figured it out. That’s a great thing. Sometimes it’s better to hand off an idea and let somebody run with it.” The sugar balloon attached to a string of taffy has since been a regular feature on the Alinea menu, something that’s almost unheard of with the ever-innovating dining style–albeit the flavour does change, Bagale mentioned during their Melbourne Food and Wine Festival masterclass, with this month featuring grape.
Achatz has always been influenced and inspired by creative mediums, whether it be painting, photography, sculpture or music. He also encourages a creative and collaborative environment at Alinea. “There’s never a dumb idea,” he says. “You need to embrace that, nobody can do it all by themselves.” He’s also thrilled of the movement in the hospitality space that is giving more kudos and attention to creativity in the kitchen. “For the first time it’s okay to say chefs are artists.” He tells me. “That used to be a really bad thing… Even fifteen years ago, Michael Ruhlman who wrote four books on Thomas Keller, was like: ‘Chefs are craftsmen, they’re not artists.’ Now we’re being put into the same category as musicians, painters and photographers. Which is great and I think it’s largely to do with exposure on television, and books and movies.”
That’s probably the best thing to come of his and others’ recent exposure, although I have to admit the celebrity status associated seem tiring. When asked how he deals with his fame–which now extends outside the food industry–he tells me it does feel strange. “It’s one thing for you to be in your target market and have a captive audience.” He says, referring to the many kitchen staff who have approached him before and after our conversation, asking for a selfie. “For me it’s weird because there’s that cancer component,” which is hard to ignore as it is such an integral element of his development to the chef–and person–he is today.
It’s not Achatz’s first time to Australia, but having only been to Sydney and Perth previously, it’s his first time touring and tasting Melbourne. Initial impressions? “Awesome,” says Achatz. “Didn’t really know what to expect. I thought it might be like Sydney, and it’s so not. Nothing wrong with Sydney, but just the restaurant scene, the bar scene, the coffee, the doughnuts, like everything is just on fire right now,” he tells me as he describes his first few days in our humble metropolis.
“We’ve already had amazing meals, Attica last night just blew my mind.” He mentions that he’s often asked what the best meal of his life is, and he doesn’t believe in naming just one. Often his first dining experiences make the cut, such as the first time trying French Laundry or elBulli. “That meal last night, it was right in that circle.” He says fondly of Attica. Also on the Melbourne list is Ricky and Pinky, Lûmé, IDES and Cutler and Co, and he has generally been impressed by the range and accessibility of the Melbourne dining scene. “It’s cool to wake up in the morning and know that you can go find some amazing coffee, and you can go find a great croissant.”
His experience at IDES allowed him to draw some parallels with his own history working underneath an influential chef and how Peter Gunn has ventured out after being the Sous Chef of Attica, under Ben Shewry. “IDES was great. I appreciate the meal there more after eating at Attica, because I know what it’s like–having worked for Thomas Keller for four and a half to five years. I know how hard it is to break free from your mentor’s style… We thought it was so good, and after at eating at Attica I realised that it is quite different. I was like, ‘Wow, that makes it even more impressive’. You know? That he has the wherewithal, the vision, the confidence. I imagine that he’s only begun his journey… It was a great experience.” He laughs as he recounts his personal conversation with Peter Gunn. “I said, ‘Chef, everything was amazing’, and I told him the dishes I thought were my favourites, and I said: ‘But really, aside from me telling you that this, this and that was good, the barometer is the fact that you kept six Chicagoans,
that were severely jet lagged, engaged the whole time. That says something, right?”
Many creative chefs have worked at Alinea and gone on to do some amazing things, Achatz tells us. “It’s a really rewarding thing to see people move on, or stay within your organisation and learn. That’s got to be very rewarding for Shewry, to see that. It’s a neat thing.” Achatz’s own mentorship style is ‘getting better’ he admits, with a somewhat embarrassed laugh, telling me it’s a process of maturing and feeling comfortable with yourself before you can really teach people. “When I say mentorship, I don’t mean; ‘here’s how you make that sauce’. That’s a teacher, that’s not a mentor,” Achatz says. “A mentor is, to me at least, somebody that through whatever medium that you’re in, gives life lessons and sets character examples and guides and advises on bigger picture things than literally how to cook. It’s part of it but it’s not the whole thing.”
So what did Achatz wish he knew before entering the hospitality world (even though he did start quite young, in his parents diner before attending culinary school)? “I wish I knew how important academics and business acumen would be to a chef, to a cook. It’s as important to be a good businessperson as it is to be a good cook. For a young culinary student or people that are aspiring to get into the business or open their own restaurant; spend just as much time paying attention to that as you do reading cookbooks.”
I also took the liberty to ask Achatz what he would tell himself now, in 2017, when he’s ten years older (in 2027). It relates somewhat to general advice for those in the industry already, and was something he took a minute to mull over, ruminating with closed eyes over steepled hands. “Be patient,” He tells me confidently. “It’s woven into a chef’s DNA to be restless and always feel like they’re not accomplishing. Most chefs I would say. Usually it takes a long time to accomplish your goals.”
Achatz’s story is one that many people have been interested in, and you can’t take the hardship, or the success, or the creativity as any separate element, but rather each part of the whole inspiring make-up of the chef and multiple-restaurant owner he is today. When asked what he thought Alinea represented in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, he told me the whole awards program is about having an original vision. “It’s really cool to think about going to Attica, and seeing what he’s doing, and then going to Osteria Francescana and they’re completely different… that to me is the major component; originality. On the list you’ll see so much bandwidth, so much originality, I think Alinea fits nicely in there. We have that unique blend of high level technique, that play on emotion and a little bit of pyrotechnics.”